Mental Health

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A common (mis)understanding of mental illness

For many people the term 'mental illness' conjures up a host of images: the old bag lady sitting on a park bench complaining to the trees, the middle aged, smelly man with wild eyes and straggly beard, collecting used dog ends and talking to himself, the frightening psychopath, let loose on society by a flaw in the community care act, and ready to wield an axe at his next unsuspecting victim. To accompany these various images, society has also developed a number of euphemisms and labels to attach to those who suffer from mental illness. See how many you can think of in just one minute.


Sadly, although we have now entered the 21st Century there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. What image do you have of someone who is mentally ill? Sufferers are normal people with normal lives. Mental illness does not just affect those who are socially deprived or have a low IQ. Unfortunately the stigma of mental illness can affect the sufferer who can feel they have no one to confide in because they are too ashamed to admit their problem. It can even cause problems for those who have recovered as returning to work or social situations can be awkward when colleagues and friends do not understand.

A brief history

Demonic possession was once thought to be the cause of mental illness. The sufferer was stigmatised by society, subjected to sometimes brutal exorcisms and treated as a pariah. As scientific knowledge grew, the notion that mental illness could be caused by brain abnormalities became widely accepted. Treatment did not, however, become any less brutal. Sufferers would be locked in large, over crowded asylums. Some would be stripped naked and chained to walls, others restrained in straight jackets. Conditions in these asylums were unsanitary and degrading. 'Therapy' would include leeches, blood letting, enemas, emetics, and even hot irons. Although treatment progressed during the 20th Century as new psychotropic drugs were experimented with, these experiments were still barbaric and the detention of patients in harsh asylums continued. Anyone who has read or seen "One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey will have an idea of the cruelty of such institutions.

The turning point in the UK for the treatment of sufferers of mental illness was "The Mental Health Act 1983". As well as the detention sections it also recognised the informal status of most patients and laid out in law policies to ensure vulnerable patients are protected. Most sufferers are now treated within the community, the type of treatment given depends on the individual person and may include medication, counselling, psychotherapy, occupational therapy, to name but a few.

Three common mental health disorders

Diagnoses of mental illnesses are made by qualified medical practitioners, usually psychiatrists, and are based upon the symptoms experienced by the patient.

Depression:Depression is a form of neurosis and can have many causes. It may be endogenous, a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. This may occur naturally or as a result of alcohol or substance abuse. It may be reactive, the result of stressful or traumatic events. It may be the result of a combination of these factors.

Symptoms of depression include a persistent low mood, low self-esteem, inability to concentrate, irritability, irrational feelings of guilt, constant pessimism, insomnia, frequent negative thoughts, the feeling of detachment from reality and the inability to manage simple, everyday tasks. Sufferers of depression may find they also experience other neuroses too.

Treatments include counselling, psychotherapy, self-help groups, anti-depressants and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT).

For further information go to Depression and College Students and Teenage DepressionSchizophrenia:Schizophrenia is a psychotic illness. The causes of it are unknown but it may be that certain people are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia and a stressful or traumatic life-event triggers the illness. Symptoms include visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. The behaviour of a sufferer of schizophrenia may appear abnormal, they may react strangely to situations, appear pre-occupied and withdrawn, they may be noisy and restless or they might be catatonic. Many schizophrenics lack insight into their illness. Some schizophrenics may also suffer from depression, particularly when their symptoms are being managed and they gain insight into their illness.

Treatment is medication, although counselling and group therapy may be used to help with any depression and to provide any support and help.

Manic depression or bi-polar disorder:Manic depression is a term often misinterpreted and used to mean severe depression (even DNA made this mistake when describing Marvin's mood). Manic depression or bi-polar disorder is another psychotic illness that causes the sufferer to flip between two moods, mania and depression. As with schizophrenia, the cause of manic depression is unknown but is probably the combination of a genetic predisposition to the illness with stressful or traumatic trigger situations.

The symptoms of the depression are as outlined above but may also include negative delusions, the slowing down of speech and movement and even catatonia. The symptoms of mania are fast, erratic speech that jumps from one topic to another, fast, erratic behaviour, increase in appetite, increase in sexual desire, loss of inhibitions, decrease in sleep, delusions of grandeur and hallucinations.

The treatment for manic depression is medication although, as with schizophrenia, counselling and group therapy can help with the depression and provide help and support.

Your mental health

If you are a sufferer of any type of mental illness then it is important that you get the help that you need. A good place to start is at your GPs. He/she will be able to refer you to the people that can help. It is also important for you to have the support of family and/or friends. Self-help groups can be particularly useful, as the best people to provide support and advice are often those who have had similar experiences and can understand how you feel. Below is a list of contacts. If you are under a mental health team, find out who your community psychiatric nurse (CPN) is and your social worker. These people can help you with any problems you may encounter but do not feel able to deal with.

If you are the friend or relative of someone with a mental illness, you may feel like you want to help but you do not know what to do. It may help you if you find out information about their illness and below is a list of useful contacts. The most useful action you can take is to listen and be supportive. You will not be able to cure your friend or relative's illness but you can show them that someone still cares. Many sufferers feel very alone and stigmatised and this small gesture can mean a lot. Do not try to cope alone though, it can be very stressful for you too and you need to make sure that you have the support you need.

A message for all those people who have never given their mental health a second thought. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people are suffering from some form of mental illness at any one time. To quote the national lottery "It could be you". Mental health is just as important as physical health and should be looked after as carefully. Allow yourself time to relax, try to reduce the amount of stress you have and try to develop better coping mechanisms to deal with the remaining stresses. Most importantly, maintain a good support network, when troubles start piling up make sure you have someone to confide in.

Useful contacts

The Samaritans - 0845 790 90 90

Mind (In London) - 020 8522 1728

(Outside London) - 0845 7660163

Manic Depression Fellowship - 21 St George Road, London SE1 6ES
020 7793 2600

Saneline - 0345 678000

Drinkline - 0800 917 8282

Carers Line - 0808 808 7777

National Voices Forum -

Mental health is a large topic and some researchers have said they would like more written about it in the guide. If anyone is interested in contributing to a university project on the subject then please post below. If there is enough interest a university project will be started.


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